The 24 hour relay: year two

I sat shivering in the sauna, the dry heat filling my salted nose as my teeth rattled. I tried to do several squats, as I had heard that could help one warm up quicker, but my legs were too wobbly. Instead, I sat on the top bench, my wet suit hung to dry as I chatted with the other ladies. Now, I can hardly remember the details of these conversations but the feeling of solidarity is still lingering in my chest. I made new friends and got to know old ones better. There’s nothing like a beautiful day, chilly waters and the glowing city at night to lay the groundwork for friendship and the sharing of rich experiences together.

The relay began at 9 am Saturday as per usual. Team Yeti (my team) was hyped and ready to go with our first official swimmer, Shannon, from Southern Oregon. Unable to imagine waiting until my first scheduled swim shift at 1:15, I got in just after 9 and stroked toward a crowd of yetis who all had the same idea about not waiting. I caught up with them at the opening of the cove, just in time to share a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the center of the above photo you can see the opening we swam through to look at the bridge and chat.

This relay is no competition whatsoever. You get in at a predetermined time and swim around in this cove at whatever pace you feel like for however far you feel like. Then you tag the next person and get out. Or you tag the next person and swim around some more if you don’t want to get out yet. I love it so much, because it’s just swimming. There’s no racing or prizes or results or awards. And the people who show up for it appreciate this aspect of it just as much as I do, which creates a congenial atmosphere.

So in that spirit, the group of us hung out there in the bay, outside the cove for a little bit and chatted in the chilly 52 degree water, while Cindy explained the various landmarks in and around the cove to a couple teammates who had not swum there before.

To give you an idea of scale: if you swim the perimeter, passing the opening in the center of the picture and making your way back along the boats on the right, it works out to be about 3/4 of a mile.

I was pretty pleased to find that I was able to stay in longer (5 x 1 hour swims) than last year’s (4 x 45 min) swims, despite the water being maybe a degree cooler. You’d be surprised at what a difference a degree makes. However, many people at the relay can swim for hours at that temperature, a testament to the body’s ability to adapt to surviving colder temperatures for those willing to push their personal limits of comfort. In fact, one such swimmer, Evan Morrison, completed a nearly nine hour swim– leaving the cove where the relay took place, rounding angel island and returning to the cove. Strong currents pushed him and his support crew far off course, resulting in a swim that was hours longer than anticipated. Such a feat is hard to get your mind around, especially if you’ve experienced the way the cold can steal the strength away from your arms and legs, rendering even strong swimmers weak and clumsy in the water. The mental strength and resilience required to persist under those conditions is mind boggling.

In any case, suffice it to say, I was hanging out with a very tough bunch of individuals. I had great conversations, ate handfuls of gummy bears, caught a wink of sleep in a racquetball court full of happily warmed and snoring swimmers and admired the beautiful, historic Dolphin Club (established 1877) that hosted the event.

The South End Rowing Club and The Dolphin Club (part of the same original building):

As usual, I was too distracted by the present moment to take as many photos as I would’ve liked, but here’s one of me and Shannon, after our multiple CVS runs.

The story here is that event organizer, Suzie Dods asked us to grab some milk and half & half. She also requested a Coca Cola, which we assured ourselves we would remember no problem. We got to the store and were greeted by a friendly employee who noted he was happy we looked “so comfortable”. We were so tickled we forgot the Coke! Upon returning to the club, we realized we also deeply regretted not purchasing such traditional athletic snacks such as Doritos and Cheetos, so we immediately departed again to purchase the forgotten items.

Luckily, one of the yetis, Daniela Klaz, is a professional photographer, so I got to relive the experience through her photos. Another yeti, Eivind, created an amazing series of videos documenting the event, which you can check out here, here and here

Daniela took a lot of absolutely awesome photos, but here is one of my favorite photos that Daniela took of me, Kristin and Margot, snuggly warm in our yeti hats.

The sunrise is one memory I’ve only got a picture of in my mind. I got in at 7 am and backstroked out to the opening, looking southeast at the increasingly glowing sky. For a moment, I thought maybe I was too late, but then I turned over to swim freestyle and was greeted by pinks and purples in the western sky. I stroked quickly, thinking if I hurried out of the cove and into the bay, I’d have a heck of a view of the Golden Gate Bridge at sunrise. I wasn’t disappointed. I treaded water, kicking hard vertically to stay warm and took in the view, trying to absorb the colors and the glow of the morning light illuminating the bridge. All too soon, I turned around and swam back into the cove, winding my way back to the dock and then around the perimeter again. I thought about how some people have a fear of missing out and how thankful I am to have these experiences that completely absorb your senses. The visual beauty of the water and sky, the thrumming of my earplugs vibrating as I pull my head through the water for a breath, the taste and smell of the salty sea and of course, the harsh but somehow soothing feel of the chilling water supporting my body with every stroke. After another hour, it was time to head back in, time to go through the sauna re-warning routine one last time. It was 8 am and the relay would end at 9. A good number of my yeti teammates decided to swim the last round together. Luckily, I was able to rewarm in plenty of time to catch everyone at the finish, playing and frolicking in the water as yetis do.

Now that I’m back home in Oregon, I’m already looking forward to doing it all again next year!

Catalina Channel Swim

Here is a little introduction for people unfamiliar with the swim. If you know what it is, feel free to scroll past this part to get to “the story”! For a write up on my crew, Kristine, Jamie and Dan, along with how I was feeling the day before, check out Catalina Preview.

The Catalina Channel

The Catalina Channel is the ocean between Catalina Island and mainland California. Despite the hit song “26 miles to Catalina”, the shortest distance between the island and mainland is actually 20.5 miles. You may swim more than that if you aren’t good at keeping a consistent distance between yourself and your escort boat.

There isn’t a race or group event going across the channel. Swimmers charter one of three boats to guide them across as either a solo attempt (one swimmer only, buddy swimmer limited to three one hour swims), a tandem swim (two swimmers going the same pace, together at all times) or a relay (swimmers trading off in shifts to reach the other side). I did the solo option, which meant that my friend Jamie Proffitt could swim the three one hour shifts, with at least one hour of alone swimming preceding each swim.

The Catalina Channel is one of three marathon swims making up, “The Triple Crown”. The other two are the English Channel and the swim around Manhattan Island, now called, “The Twenty Bridges Marathon Swim”.

The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation

Swims are ratified by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) and are done under specific rules. For example, a swimmer can only wear a swimsuit, cap, goggles and ear plugs—no wetsuits or fancy speedsuits or things attached to you like tow float-buoys and whatnot. One of the most common questions I got beforehand from folks was, “can you wear a wetsuit? Why not?” Well, first of all, the water was quite warm (72F) for most of the swim. There were times I regretted wearing a silicone cap instead of the slightly cooler latex one. A wetsuit would’ve been unbearable and maybe even dangerously warm, not to mention the chafing (inevitable after so many hours, regardless of what product you use). But one of the biggest reason channel swimmers don’t wear wetsuits is because training your body to deal with water temperature is part of the training. It’s part of the sport, just as getting good at riding an actual bicycle (not an electric powered bike) is part of triathlon. Although some people have a natural talent for dealing with the cold, everyone can improve, because our bodies go through a series of adaptations when continually exposed to cold water.

The CCSF provides two observers to be present on the boat and monitor not only rule following (no hanging on the kayak, no breaks, no one touching you), but also health indicators (are you peeing regularly, are you vomiting, shivering, feeling ok). They have the authority to end the swim if they think you are in danger–a good idea since they are more objective than your crew, who are often made up of close friends.

The Bottom Scratcher

I chartered The Bottom Scratcher for my swim. There are two other options, Magician and Pacific Star. I don’t know much about those, but I loved the Bottom Scratcher, her captains and and her crew. The Bottom Scratcher has been guiding people across the channel for decades. The large, 25 person dive boat is no longer under the original ownership, but current owner Captain Kevin Bell worked under the old owner for many years before taking over. Everyone we talked to spoke extremely positively of Captain Kevin, so we knew we were in good hands. Someone told us that he also works as an engineer and that consequently, the boat is in extremely good condition mechanically. This is a big deal–what happens if the swim you trained so hard for has to be cancelled on account of a boat that breaks down?

The Bottom Scratcher is the boat with the American flag on top in the picture below.

The Story

…Hour 10

Me: why is it taking so long? Why is our progress slowing down suddenly?

Other me: I don’t know, dude. There’s probably a current. Just keep swimming.

Me: I’m just so irritated. We could be there by now.

Other Me: why do you want to get there? You like swimming. You’re not even that tired. Don’t you kind of want to swim as much as you can?

Me: not really.

Other Me: well you’re not that tired and you’re already here, so swimming longer than you thought isn’t really a bad thing.

Me: well I guess you’re right in that regard.

Looking back on my internal dialogue, I’m aware of just how wacky this sounds, but let’s take a look at how I got to this point…

14 hours earlier: Before the Swim

After The Bottom Scratcher left the harbor around 7:30 pm, the pre-swim meeting began, led by Captain Jim. We learned that two captains (Jim and Kevin) would be working in shifts, along with two deck hands, (Ryan and David). Roxy, Joel and Camilla, from the CCSF would be observing. Lauren was working the galley for the boat crew.

The captains explained all the rules of the boat and what everyone’s roles would be. They both were very clear, informative and approachable while still projecting a professional feeling of authority. I felt I could already trust them. Even though they said having two kayaks was a first for them, they allowed me to swim between the kayaks as long as we would immediately adjust if they found it wasn’t working. They explained they would be piloting from the top of the boat, and must be able to see everyone in the water very clearly at all times. Only red lights were allowed on board and on kayakers’ headlamps, so I was happy I’d already insisted on the same rules, so all three of my friends were properly equipped. The observers would need to be able to see me clearly at night to count my strokes (if there’s a problem your stroke rate will decrease). Consequently, everyone wanted me to swim nearest to the Bottom Scratcher so they could have the best view of me, with both kayakers or kayaker and buddy swimmer off to my right. I was so thankful they were flexible and agreed to give it a try with me swimming right next to Dan, flanked on the other side by Kristine in the second kayak or Jamie during his swim shifts. I know doing it this way made a big difference in my swim.

Track.rs

Many of my family and friends expressed interest in the swim, so I decided to register  with track.rs, tracking software developed by fellow marathon swimmer, Evan Morrison. For those of you who watched me swim (or anyone else’s tracker), you’ll recognize this series of orange dots.

Messages Image(112753228).jpeg

While we were riding on the boat to the island, Jamie got a message from Evan himself, saying that the tracker was not working well (it had poor accuracy). The two of them verified all the settings were correct and Evan somehow switched to tracking the Bottom Scratcher itself rather than Dan’s phone, as we had originally planned. I believe there was a second hiccup during the swim and he and Jamie worked it out again! All this took place without me even realizing there was a problem. What amazing support I had. If you want to register your swim with track.rs, go to https://track.rs.

The Nausea Begins

As the boat pulled out of the harbor, it rocked gently and I found the motion comforting, as if I were in a giant rocking chair. Later, Kristine mentioned she was feeling the same pleasant sensation. I guess I’m not prone to sea sickness, I thought happily. But after just a little while I started to feel queasy. Stepping outside I felt much better and stood on deck with Dan for awhile. He started working on getting the kayaks ready so I climbed up to the top of the boat and hung out with Jamie and Kristine for awhile.

View from the upper deck of Dan getting his kayak ready.

The view was great but I was starting to feel nauseous. I didn’t really get why, since the water wasn’t all that wavy, compared to other situations I’ve been in. I drank a ginger brew but the feeling just got worse. I paced, talked to Dan, went inside, went outside, stared at the horizon, but nothing helped. Finally, I found myself leaning my head on the kayak, eyes shut, pushing on my temples. “Just don’t vomit. You need those calories,” Other Me told me, thinking about the dinner I had consumed. I went into the cabin and crawled into a little bunk, dozing while squeezing my eyes shut and trying to remember where the anti-motion sickness pressure point is on your wrist. In the photo above, you can see the little bunks underneath where the kayaks are. There are some other bunks in the “indoor” part of the boat.

Someone told me it was time to get up and swim. It turned out we had come to a stop. I got up and realized I was freezing cold and my teeth were chattering. Apparently, Other Me thought we were in for the night and had turned the core-temp thermostat down. I drank a hot mug of water and shivered while everyone else got ready. After about a half hour, the queasiness had subsided and I had stopped shivering. I was happy and ready to swim!

The Start

We started just before 11:30pm. Dan and Kristine got in first, with their kayaks lit up with glow sticks and Christmas lights. They paddled off to the island. I was next and jumped in when directed, following a spotlight from the boat to a rocky beach. I immediately noticed the wonderful buoyancy of the salt water, feeling ecstatically great. I had been told to grab a rock from the start on the island to pair up with a rock from the finish as a swim souvenir. Rock collecting is another hobby Dan and I do together so I was really excited for this part. I couldn’t see much, but spotted a nice looking quartzy one and grabbed it. I shoved it under my swim cap, next to my forehead and raised my hand in the traditional ready-to-start signal I had been instructed to use. When I touched the water, my hand went down so the observers could officially start the clock.

I swam over to Kristine and dropped the rock in her kayak, making sure not to come close to touching her or the kayak as that is against the rules. The rock made a loud thunk against the plastic and I was off on my first hour.

Swimming between the two well-lit kayaks (below).

Hour 1

The first hour was not like I visualized and not like my fear-ridden practice swims. I felt great, cruising through the buoyant water and happy to finally be on my way. The novelty of the whole thing superseded any anxiety I may have otherwise had. I cut off any thoughts that may have steered me down the road of considering what wildlife might be in the dark water below. Instead I focused on orienting myself to the kayaks and Bottom Scratcher, getting settled in and holding myself back from swimming too hard. As each arm went in, thousands of tiny lights cascaded off of it, like a galaxy of stars against the night sky. This was the much anticipated phosphorescence people had told me about. It was most apparent when I’d do a few strokes of breaststroke. Pushing my arm around underwater would light these small organisms up like fireflies. It was beautiful.

Hour 2

Before I knew it, hour one was up and Jamie was trading places with Kristine to swim with me for hour two. It was during this hour we saw what I call, “glow thumbs” for the first time. These were glowing organisms about the size of your thumb, rising up in clusters from the depths below. We were told they had freaked someone out the night before but not to worry about them. Knowing they were harmless, I found them enchanting.

Hours 3-4

I started comparing the current timeline to my Waldo swim a few weeks ago. Around four hours, Other Me pointed out that this was around the time that Dan met me during the Waldo swim. “You’ve just got a ‘three islands route’ left”, Other Me said in reference to the 22k route in Waldo Lake that I did for the first time last year.

“Just a three-islands route, hmph”, I grumbled back. “My arms are already starting to hurt”.

“Sure. But do they really hurt that bad?”

“No… not really I guess”, I sighed and kept swimming. Somewhere during this time period the nausea crept back in, getting worse and worse as the time went by.

Hour 5

Jamie got in for his second swim. This time he swam much closer to me, instead of where he normally would swim if we were in a lake. I was sandwiched between him and the kayak so it was a bit tricky to avoid running into either him or the kayak.

“You know, it’s ok to ask for what you want,” the Other Me said. I didn’t answer.

“Just ask!” It insisted.

“Ugh. Fine!” I stopped swimming and Jamie looked up, startled.

“Could I have a little more room?” I asked, as politely as I could manage.

“Of course!” He answered graciously. Then he swam in the perfect spot, just off to my left, staying slightly behind me so as to be compliant with the rules of not giving me a draft.

I later learned that he had been told to swim closer to me than on the first swim and he didn’t really know if it was a safety thing so he decided not to object. Then I went and told him to swim further from me! Poor guy couldn’t win, but he said he was fine and didn’t get any further re-direction from the crew or observers. Having him in there helped mark the passing hours and break up the monotony with some companionship.

Hours 6-7

Kristine got back in the kayak. It was nice to see her and have a change to break up the monotony. It sure was helpful having her there in addition to Dan. I stopped for a “feed” (water mixed with infinit go-far powder in my case) and started back up again with backstroke to stretch out my shoulders. I kept heading toward my right when I’d do this. When Kristine was in, I’d almost run into the kayak (actually did at one point), but when she wasn’t in, I’d drift toward the Bottom Scratcher. At one point I was heading straight for it, coming so close everyone on deck was yelling at me to turn around before I noticed. So it really was helpful having Kristine on one side and Dan in the other, boxing me in. It was a hard job for the kayakers, but allowed me to breath to both sides without zig zagging around in the area between Dan and the Bottom Scratcher. Dan even mentioned later that having Kristine on the water with him was a comfort, especially when the moon fell behind the fog and we found ourselves all in a sea of darkness.

The Nausea Returns

By hours five, six and seven, the nausea had returned and was making me not want to try hard. The moon had gone behind some clouds, before eventually setting, so it was a lot darker. The darker it is, the more likely a swimmer is to get vertigo from not being able to see the horizon or the contrast between sky and water. I didn’t feel dizzy, but there wasn’t any chop and the swells were small–like a foot high maybe. These channel swims are almost always done starting at night because the wind makes the water choppier in the afternoon. Swimming at night usually means calmer waters. As I swum, I questioned whether I’d prefer the chop to the nausea.

I don’t typically want to eat solid food during swims, but this time the idea of it made my stomach reel. I knew it was almost time for me to have coffee and a peanut butter cliff-builders bar. But I just couldn’t. I felt so sick that I had goosebumps despite the warm-ish water. I even felt weirdly chilled like you do when you’re really nauseous. I asked for the water temp during a feed. Seventy-four was the answer. Wow, I thought. That’s really, really warm. I realized it was more like a cold sweat feeling from the nausea. Just then, my stomach heaved in an odd, almost gentle way. Very odd, actually, and out came the tinniest little throw-up you ever did see. I don’t even feel comfortable saying I puked, because it really wasn’t like that. But it wasn’t like acid reflux either. Gross, but oh so relieving! I felt so good and it was like I was starting fresh and rested again. My body cruised through the water with no struggle and I savored the lack of nausea… until it started to build again about ten minutes later. When you puke, your brain cells actually releases certain chemicals, neurotransmitters that make you feel good, similar to taking a Xanax. I reflected on this as I swam along, hoping for the best of both worlds: mini-puking without losing much water or calories. I thought perhaps burping more would help, so I gave myself a free pass on the builders bar and asked Jamie to tell Kristine to get the other Coca Cola ready for me when she got back in for hours 6-7. I started drinking fizzy vanilla coke for every other feed, which caused frequent little burp-ups that were relieving every time.

Somewhere in there something stung my arm. It felt like a brief electric shock and went away as quickly as it came. There had been a few other, milder pin pricks earlier that I assumed were maybe sea lice. In any event, I imagine it was a jelly, but what do I know? And it didn’t pose a problem of any kind so if it was, it was definitely the gentle variety.

Hours 7, 8 and 9

This was definitely the most enjoyable three hours of the swim. First light right around hour 7 brought hope and a morale boost and looked something like this:

As soon as the sun rose, my nausea vanished, further adding weight to the theory it wasn’t about the water conditions, but more about the almost non-existent horizon on the ocean at night. I stored that information away for later swim planning. With every feed, I felt stronger and happier than the last. At one point I told Dan I was feeling “800% better than when we started”. Plus, Other Self was in rare form with its glib remarks and witty humor. I wish I could remember some of the things that were said, but most of them are gone now. A lot of it was discussion of the going-ons in the boat and Dan’s kayak. I’m not actually sure if any of it was truly funny or if I was just thinking ordinary thoughts, but those thoughts just seemed extremely entertaining at that time. I do remember that my friend Anna, from Michigan (which is on east coast time), mentioned she’d be working an early shift and planned to check the tracker frequently, “while I go pee,” she had explained. As I calculated what time it was in various places my friends live, this memory bubbled up. Other Self thought it was hilarious and kept bringing it up. “Hey, maybe you should pee right now too,” it suggested. “You and Anna could be peeing at the same time, you know.” Later, Anna told me her co-workers were confused by her frequent bathroom breaks, during which she’d reload the tracker and maybe pee or not.

Here’s me peeing and drinking a coke at the same time!

I took all these pee jokes in stride– yelling “PEEING!!” loudly for the whole boat to hear whenever I did, which was almost exactly every twenty minutes, like clockwork. It cracked me up most of the swim and I thoroughly enjoyed this part. However, it’s really a serious thing because if you aren’t peeing it can be a sign of kidney failure and the observers need to know your body is functioning well.

Mind Games

At some point, Other Self suggested we play, “The Alphabet Game”, which involves saying a positive word starting with each letter in the alphabet. This game is really hard when you’re in a bad mood, but a lot of fun when you’re feeling great. Either way, it keeps the mind busy and boosts morale. Other Self also put before me an intriguing riddle: “why has Jamie decided not to get into the water for his third swim yet?” Trying to solve this puzzle was irrationally enjoyable and it passed the time. I’ve got it! I shouted in my head, after a bit. I had solved the riddle. Jamie wanted to swim through the cold part at the end of the swim to see what it felt like. I felt so proud to have discovered his true motives. Too bad I wasn’t even close. He had like three or four motives, none of them including swimming through the cold upwelling.

Another mind game was that Other Self rewarded me with a new Lady Gaga song at the start of each twenty minute feed cycle. I could have that song in my head and earn a new one by swimming on to the next feed break. No cheating by switching songs before the next break.

The Doldrums of Hour 10

I started to get impatient. I knew we had been on track to finish in around ten hours, so imagine my dismay when progress slowed to a crawl. Later I learned it was due to a strong current working against us. It was near the trench that is well known for causing an upwelling of cold water. We speculated maybe it contributed to the current since the tide was still going in at that time and should’ve been helping us. It just goes to show how complicated the ocean is. After passing the trench, progress sped up again, much to my relief. However, before that, as we were proceeding at a glacial pace, Dan and I both found ourselves independently frustrated. The fog next to the land was so thick that it looked like just open ocean lay ahead. Every so often, I’d pick my head up to look (always a mistake). Finally, when it was time for a feed, I yell-asked, “where’s the fucking land?!”

“It’s foggy,” Dan said calmly. Later I learned he had been equally irritated and had asked the exact same question in the exact same tone. We both silently concluded the crew was lying to us and we actually had ten miles or so to go.

“Are you ok?” He asked for the 30th time. It really was 30. He had to ask every feed for the observer’s log and it was getting old.

“I guess.” I replied, testily.

“No. ARE YOU OK,” he barked back.

“YES!” I screamed and started swimming again. I immediately felt bad for screaming. It wasn’t Dan’s fault he had to ask me if I was ok every twenty minutes. It wasn’t even the observer’s fault. It’s actually a good idea to force people to check in no matter what.

I picked my head up and looked again. This time I thought I saw a skyscraper through the fog. Maybe it’s clearing up or maybe we are finally getting closer, I thought. Later, when it really did clear up, this became a good laugh for us all. If you’ve ever been to Palos Verdes, where the swim ends, you’ll understand. The beach is totally undeveloped, with huge cliffs looming over the shore. There definitely are no skyscrapers there. Dan told me later his eyes got a bit buggy too and it looked as though every wave was a potential shark fin.

Jamie could see morale was sinking to an all-swim-low, so he shouted, “oooo look! Dolphins!!” I stopped swimming and looked around frantically, not wanting to miss the famous, playful companions. Later I learned it was a prank (he cracks me up), but I was so convinced, that I conjured up a hallucinated dolphin very far off in the distance. So I guess the prank worked on me at least. It was during this time that the dialogue between me and my other self opening this story occurred. It really was ok to swim longer and my arms hurt, but I otherwise felt my energy was good and I could keep going indefinitely. It just seemed more like my previous expectations were what was bugging me more than how I felt physically.

The Finish

Finally the fog cleared up and we could see the cliffs of Palos Verdes ahead of us. It still seemed miles and miles away, so I resolved to not get my hopes up, despite being told we had 3/4 of a mile to go. I saw Dan talking with the captain and heard the word “choice”, which meant they were discussing where to land–the closer, rocky area or the further sandy beach. It turned out the captain was telling Dan there was “only one choice”, the sandy beach, which was fine with me, (of course–because I had decided I like swimming). It also appeared Dan and I were going to go all the way in together, which I had really hoped for. As the shore became more and more clearly visible, I stubbornly refused to get my hopes up. Finally, I could see the bottom and knew I had made it. I felt suddenly emotional and walked slowly up the beach until I heard The Bottom Scratcher honk its horn, signaling the end of the swim!

Dan gave me a huge, long hug and jumped into the water himself, with a happy “wahooooo!” It made me feel happy to see him enjoying the water and our finish. I was so proud that we had both done the whole channel together!

We looked around for a rock to collect from the finish of the swim that could go with the one I had grabbed from the start. I spotted a dark-colored striped one and thought it’d go well with he white quartzy one from the start. Dan said I should choose, and it turned out he had been eyeing the same rock.  So I grabbed it and put it in the kayak to take back to The Bottom Scratcher.

I found myself getting chilly standing on the windy beach in my swimsuit and knew I couldn’t hang out for too long. I started shivering and signaled to Dan I was going to go ahead and swim back to the boat. He came too and I was greeted by warm smiles and congratulations. Kristine was holding my towel, exactly what I needed right then and I finally got to drink the hot cup of chocolate I was hoping to have mid-swim.

Channel Swim Friendly Local Businesses

There were a number of locals who really helped us out and if you are planning a Catalina swim, or are visiting the area, you may want to check these spots.

House of Owls (Airbnb)

We stayed in this two bedroom, one bath, airbnb that was a few minutes drive from The Bottom Scratcher’s marina. We even walked down there the evening before to check it out. The place was clean, quiet and relaxing. There was a washer and dryer, oven, toaster oven, various ways to make coffee, fridge and freezer, hot shower, everything you really need. The couch was even comfortable enough to sleep on!

OEX Sunset (Kayak rentals)

It was a big of a drive to get to Sunset Beach from the airbnb in San Pedro, but it was worth it. This place rented us a long, stable sit-on-top kayak for $45 for one day–just pick up anytime and drop off anytime the next day. The really amazing thing was that their employees are professional kayak escorts for the channel! Ramon Hipolito (who turned out to be the brother of our observer, Roxy) allowed us to ask him an hour’s worth of questions and suggested we rent the kayak he had paddled across the channel last week. They were so helpful and reassuring that it set our minds at ease–we were getting a kayak that was appropriate for what we were doing.

Nazalie’s

Fantastic Lebanese food in San Pedro, just a few blocks from the airbnb. I recommend the falafel sandwich!

Bunz

If you need a pre-swim burger, try this place. They have a million options, but I just got the simple burger. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. They don’t use ground beef, we were told, just ground tri-tip and brisket!

Rafaello’s Ristorante

We found this place in downtown San Pedro based on its great yelp reviews and decided to go there the evening after the swim. We walked in to find there were two large families celebrating birthdays and everyone was talking and laughing. Normally, I don’t like loud restaurants, but the celebratory atmosphere was so happy and full of love, I immediately relaxed. As I sat looking at the menu, wondering how many entrees and appetizers I should order, our waiter brought us two, huge (complimentary) plates of bread, marinated tomatoes and roasted red peppers. My eyes wanted to jump out of my head and my taste buds were freaking out with joy. Next came delicious salads of fresh mixed greens. We hadn’t even ordered yet! Finally, I ordered chicken spaghetti in red sauce and a glass of wine. While we were waiting, our waiter chatted with another table, then suddenly broke into song. He had an amazing voice and sang what sounded like a lullaby in Italian, while the family at the table he was singing to held up their six month old baby. My mind was blown. We ate as much as we could and asked for the rest to go. Our waiter told us he had planned to bring us some spumoni and wondered if we really needed to go already. Wow, I wished I had room for spumoni, but my poor stomach couldn’t fit much in it after all. We sadly asked for the check, but left feeling happy, satisfied and thankful.

 

Catalina Channel Swim Preview

I’m going to swim The Catalina Channel tomorrow, you guys! Obviously there will be a post after the swim, but this is just a quick, little update about how I’m feeling the day before.

How am I feeling?

People keep asking me this one and I have to stop to check–it’s hard to describe. The best answer is that I’m feeling “amped”. It’s just a lot–a lot of energy and sometimes it feels excited and other times terrifying to the point of tears. I don’t think I’ve felt this way before. I think I like it and I’m pretty sure this is what I signed up for.

Wants and Not-Wants

Thinking back to the day I called The Bottom Scratcher, my chartered escort boat and put a deposit down on the swim, I recall wanting to experience the ocean by being in it. By being in it for ten or so hours. At night. I had read about the phosphorescence in other’s blog posts–the water lighting up as your arms enter and disturb tiny organisms in the water. I had heard of pods of dolphins playfully accompanying swimmers and pictured myself facing the challenging sting of jellyfish to discover what I’m made of. The ocean is a big deal and I want to be a part of it. I want to feel small, because I am small in the grand scheme of things. I want to be in the wild, where things are real, where there is no black line, no concrete walls. Heck, there’s not even a shoreline to be seen. I want to move up and down with the waves, even if it means I puke, as many channel swimmers often do. I don’t want there to be predators of the size that would look at me as potential food. I don’t want to be in any kind of danger, whatsoever. I don’t want to feel panic symptoms that make me want to stop, tread water and look around. I don’t want the scary thoughts that are already bombarding my mind. But real life isn’t an Amazon order where you just point and click at the items you want and scroll past the ones you don’t want. I signed up for this, knowing what I was getting into. And also, this is my first channel crossing so I really have no idea what I’m getting into at all.

A Solid Crew

The best thing I have going for me right now is a very solid crew. Here they are, walking through San Pedro like the rockstars they definitely are.

My boyfriend, Dan will be the crew chief, because he knows me best and has done so many swims with me already. He’s solid in an emergency and solid in a non-emergency. I know I can trust and count on him no matter how I’m feeling during the swim. Experienced marathon swimmer, Jamie Proffitt will be the deck guy, fill in kayaker, social media updater and buddy swimmer, which means he can swim up to three, one hour periods with me (excluding the first hour, which I must swim alone). Jamie’s optimistic attitude had me talked out of all my fears and doubts before we even got to the airport. They will return, no doubt, but I have only to make it through that first hour until he will be cruising along with me for hour #2. Then there’s Kristine Senkier, about as solid and self-less person as you could ever hope for on a long swim like this. We swam together almost daily through the winter of 2017, before END-WET, so she’s already seen me grumpy from fatigue. She’s paddled some of my training swims and was Jamie’s paddler when he did SCAR. She’s also a tough, resilient and fast swimmer in her own right. This is an all-star crew and there’s a comfort with having people I know well and trust around me. When I think about them, the fear shifts to excitement and I just can’t wait. So wish me well, friends, and stay tuned for the story after the swim.

Welcome to the Pain Cave: 10.5 Hours in Waldo Lake

Stroke. Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Stroke. I stop to look around and survey my progress. Waldo Lake is as beautiful as ever, but the southern island hasn’t gotten any closer. “It’s right there!” Dan calls to me, pointing emphatically. “C’mon! Just a little further!”

Everything hurts at this point. I know I can finish, but it’s painful and I know I need to take it easy, stroke by stroke. I also know that I can’t stop. Even in just a handful of seconds not swimming, my teeth have begun to chatter. At this point, I’ve been in the water for ten hours, with about a half hour left to go. I just need to loop around the southern, final island, and swim about 1500 meters to the boat ramp where the warm truck awaits me.

Dan is confused as to why I am stopping and I have become only minimally communicative. I’m willing to answer hypothermia test questions like what Dan’s middle name is, but everything else seems like too much work. I start swimming again. I’ll get there eventually, I think. Even the songs in my head have quit playing. I watch Dan’s face, above me, from the water. Something about looking up at him gives me confidence. He doesn’t notice me looking at him, but he’s all I see for a bit.

As we round the southern island, I fantasize about walking my way around it, but I keep swimming. The water is only three feet deep and my hands graze the rocks as I swim. When I do eventually make it to shore, Dan holds my arm as I walk out of the water and put my feet into my Tevas. The truck is only about 15 yards away. I can do this, I think, as I head towards it.

As I warm up in the truck and Dan unloads the boat, I reflect back on the swim, feeling rather accomplished but also humbled. The point of this swim was definitely to push my limits with both cold and distance and to try to get to a place of discomfort that I hadn’t been to before, a place runners call, “the pain cave”. Mission accomplished.

The day started out all right. At 5400 feet altitude, in the cascade mountains, the air and water are cool even in August. The air temperature was 40 degrees and the water was 62 at the inlet where we started, but 63-64 later in the day. It was colder than I had anticipated, but perfect conditions for pushing my limits. I didn’t want to ask Dan to paddle with me for ten plus hours, so I swam around the lake by myself for about four hours, self-supporting with my huge, orange buoy. Here’s me at the start of the swim, backstroking out of the inlet.

I think the self-supporting was my first error as it took about 2-3 minutes per feed–fumbling with the buoy, deflating it to get the water bottle out, re-inflating it after getting the bottle back in. During that time I could feel my core temperature drop, and I compensated for that by swimming way too hard for the beginning of a long swim. I felt great at the time, but I wasn’t pacing myself the way I did at END-WET. I also kept putting off the feed stops, drinking only 10 ounces twice over the course of almost four hours.

The self-supported course took me from the shadow bay day use parking inlet and around rhododendron island. I then loosely contoured around the south side of the lake, rounding the southern island for the first time this swim. Here is the gps watch track from when I was wearing it for part one. The triangle is where I started and the square is where I met Dan, stopped the watch and restarted it in the lower battery using mode for kayaking.

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I swam back to the inlet to pick up another water bottle and was delighted to see Dan paddling out toward me. We hadn’t planned to meet for another 1-2 hours and I can’t even begin to describe what a comfort it was having him there, paddling next to me. I unbuckled my buoy and watch and handed them to him, showing him how to deflate the buoy. We had decided we would do our “three islands course”, which we pioneered for the first time last year (details of navigating that course here). I knew the course would take around another 6.5 hours and we set off on the east side of the lake, heading north.

Here’s the track from the gps watch when Dan was wearing it for part two.

WaldoTrack2_2019

As we passed the shadow bay campground, Dan pointed in front of us to a large pod of swimmers with wetsuits and buoys. I was delighted to see them and wanted to go playfully great them, my fellow in-water recreators. However, I thought better of it–I was too cold for conversation and they did not stop or look up as they passed. So I swam on.

Oh yeah, did I mention the mountain views??

I stayed cold for another couple hours, but by then it was around 12:30-1pm so the air had warmed up a lot and eventually translated into a slightly warmer me. By the time we reached the north island, I was feeling really good and told Dan I wanted to eat a sandwich bite near the north island. I made these little bite-sized turkey sandwiches in camp the night before.

There were a ton of people floating in the protected area near the island, but there were also some slightly warmer patches of water. When Dan handed me a sandwich bite, it tasted amazing. I gobbled it down as quickly as I could, but there were at least four bites worth in one “bite” and it was a lot of chewing. I handed him the last little bite and swam on quickly to try to rewarm.

This section may have been the best part of the swim. My energy felt good, I wasn’t too cold, my internal DJ was playing all my favorite songs and the sun shone high overhead. The water was the sapphire-blue color Waldo is famous for and I remembered I had packed a coca-cola to drink around hour 8. All these things out me in a great mood. I didn’t have a chance to take a picture underwater, but here’s a picture from a past Waldo swim to remind you of that color.

And here I am Saturday, swimming toward the horizon, headed south. The water is that same blue, looking down into it.

As the hours ticked by, my arms began to hurt. I’d take “breaks” by swimming backstroke, but eventually that hurt too. Things started to get a little… interesting, but there continued to be intermittent patches of feeling pretty good. At several points, Dan checked in, asking me questions and telling me my stroke count. I practiced being honest with him, “it hurts a lot,” I told him. “Are you in a danger zone?”, he wanted to know. “No, I’m totally fine, just uncomfortable”. The challenging thing for me about swimming in the cold (or cool) water is that I found myself perpetually choosing between more pain or more cold. If I swam hard to stay warm, I’d hurt more, but if I backed off and swam gently, my teeth would start to chatter. I settled for trading off, swimming harder for a bit, then easy again.

We eventually rounded Rhododendron Island for the second time for me that day and Dan went to the bathroom while I swam on. By the time he caught up to me again, on the way to the southern island, I was hurting. Midway there I felt a fatigue so strong come over me like a blanket. I could no longer really get my heart rate up, and everything hurt, no matter what I did. Nothing was injured, just very fatigued. I knew this was what I had gone to the lake for, to get more tired than I have ever before, to push my limits and see what’s there. To check out what everyone who’s been there is talking about. You can’t take a photo of the pain cave and post it on your instagram. You’ve got to go there to experience it.

We passed the opening to the inlet where the truck was parked on our way to the southern island. I could’ve just swum into it and been in the truck in 20 minutes, but I chose to swim on, one stroke at a time. I spent all day trying to get to this point, I thought. Why miss out on it now?

Here I am, approaching the southern islandyou can just barely make it out in the left side of the photo, on the horizon.

As I sit in the truck after the swim, shivering and flipping through the photos Dan took (all photo credits to Dan btw), I am overwhelmed by conflicting emotions of being proud and being humbled. Proud because I showed up and was out there doing what I love. Humbled because I am not indestructible, I can’t just go forever. I’ve got limits. But I now know myself better than before. I know my weak areas better and where I need to focus my training. I now know first-hand the importance of pacing. And I also know I’ve got more in me and look forward to finding that at the next adventure.

Straits of Mackinac

“I could swim across that,” I said, as a tow-headed-blonde, ten year-old. My sisters, brother, parents and I were traveling over the Mackinac Bridge in our large, blue, Ford Club Wagon van. “No you can’t,” someone said. “It’s 4 miles long. You’d drown!”

I looked down at the choppy water out the window. It was blue with whitecaps and probably foreboding to most, but to a cocky, ten year-old who had just achieved her first “A” time, it seemed totally doable.

It turns out it is totally doable, and the number of people who’ve done it doubled Sunday, 8/11/19, when over 300 people completed the crossing as part of “The Mighty Mac” race event.

The Mackinac Bridge connects the lower peninsula of Michigan with the upper peninsula and the water flowing beneath it is known as “The Straights of Mackinac”.

As race organizer, Jim Dreyer pointed out at the safety meeting the night before, “there isn’t anyone who has driven over that bridge and hasn’t wondered what it’s like down there, and tomorrow you’re going to get to actually experience that”. I smiled as the memory of my ten year-old self sprung to mind. I’d always wanted to do this and now I was going to get to. This is what it’s all about, I told myself, having written my post on the “why issue” just a few days prior.

The Wetsuit

With that in mind, I set my alarm for 4:15 (1:15 am pacific) and stumbled sleepily out of the car at the ferry dock at 5 am. My dad stood patiently by, while I cursed and swore at my wetsuit as I tugged it on, inch by inch. As my main swimming focus lately has been acclimating to cold water, I don’t ordinarily use my wetsuit and have become unaccustomed to the arduous process of putting it on. However, wetsuits and tow-floats were required for this swim by the race organizers and I support their decision. Four hundred people were signed up for the swim and the water temperature varied considerably throughout the straits. The race organizer explained that the wetsuits were needed in case the wind, currents or weather suddenly turned bad, as is common for these waters. In that case, they would “extract” us all, one by one–a process that might mean we are in the water considerably longer than anticipated. With sudden weather changes, the water temperature could plummet from high 60s to mid-50s without much warning. I sweated as I yanked the wetsuit higher, over my hips. With the current water temperature around 68 F, I was mainly concerned about overheating while swimming and I found that, despite the wetsuit being sleeveless, I was quite warm during the swim.

The Ferry Ride

We all boarded the ferry with only what we would swim with–in my case: cap, goggles, phone in dry case and my small, orange tow-float. I brought the phone so my dad could see my progress and know what time he and my mom should head over to see me finish. I couldn’t figure out how to use racejoy so I just did “share my location” with him.

One of the things I enjoyed about this swim is that people could wear and bring whatever they wanted, provided they complied with the rules and wore a wetsuit and towed a float. Some folks opted for flippers and carried “feeds” (food and drink) in their tow-floats. Other people brought shoes or neoprene socks to walk over the rocks. This contributed to a relaxed, swim-your-own-swim type of atmosphere. The spirit of adventure was certainly with us.

I found the rocks at the start and finish to be unremarkable and did not regret leaving my footwear at home. However, I did achieve a small bruise or cut on my heel. I also did not regret waiting until the finish to eat and drink. I’m accustomed to swimming for a few hours without nutrition and did not notice any ill effects. It turned out to be a plus not to have the distraction of eating in the middle of the swim.

As people boarded the ferry, I saw a couple people I knew–Jay Zawacki, a teammate of mine growing up and Bruce Geffen, know to me as my sister’s middle school teacher, “Mr. Geffen”. I haven’t done much swimming in Michigan since I left in 1998, so it felt good to know a few people on the boat. I didn’t even know Mr. Geffen was a swimmer until another childhood teammate of mine, Anna Nathan, told me he was doing the race. It really is a small world out there and swimming connects us in such a cool way.

As the ferry pulled out of the harbor, the view of the bridge and sunrise from the ferry was something to behold. I milled around the lower cabin, taking as many photos as I could.

Another downside of wetsuits is that once they are on, there’s no peeing until you’re in the water. By the time we anchored on the south side of the straights, the urge was so strong I didn’t even have the mental capacity to be nervous about the swim. When it was time to jump from the ferry deck–about 6 feet, I didn’t even hesitate.

After taking a few minutes to relieve myself, I looked around. What a sight! The sunrise colors were still in the sky, the bridge loomed magnificently over us and swimmers with their colorful tow-floats were scattered all around the ferry. I’ve got the take a picture, I thought. I quickly deflated my buoy enough for me to remove my phone, still in its waterproof envelope. But I realized I had blocked the touch screen by putting a piece of paper with my name and emergency contact on it in the phone dry case. I couldn’t take a picture without opening the dry case and exposing the phone to possibly getting wet. I looked around as waves lapped around me. People were gradually making their way to the south shore, where they would exit the water, run over a timing mat that would register their timing chip and officially start swimming for the north shore. Since I hadn’t run over the timing mat yet, my official swim hadn’t started. And I really wanted a picture. Sighing, I opened the plastic zip envelope and fumbled around trying to move the paper away from the screen. I fumbled and fumbled, while my buoy filled with water and waves threatened to douse my unprotected phone. I clumsily realized I wasn’t going to be able to get the paper out of the way without losing everything to the bottom of the lake. I looked behind me at the shore. The event had already begun and racing swimmers were already passing me on my left on their way out into the channel. I decided I wouldn’t get my photo but was happy I figured this out before officially beginning the crossing. I managed to dump a lot of the water out of the buoy and swim back to shore. Once there, I deflated my buoy a second time, finally took a photo, dumped out more water and re-inflated, all the while watching swimmers start their crossing. So I worked hard for this photo taken at the start of the race.

You can see swimmers on the left, beginning their crossing and swimmers on the right, swimming from the anchored ferry to the south shore where the crossing began.

The Swim

Tired of fumbling with wetsuits and tow-floats, I happily ran over the timing mat and plunged into the water. It was a relief to finally get swimming and I was on my way with a happy spirit. There was only a slight chop at the beginning, winds coming from the southwest, giving me a nice tailwind despite the slight push off-course from the west-to-east wind. Before I knew it, I was approaching the first tall suspension tower–and tower over me it did. I breathed to the left as I watched the bridge, stretching out into the waters to the land beyond. Breathing to the right, I felt I was looking out over the ocean.

As the swim continued, the wind picked up and I remember it getting choppy. White caps appeared on the surface and the current began to tug me slightly eastward, toward a line of boats marking the east side of the area we were allowed to swim in. It was not hard to stay on course, as the bridge was ever-present and easy to sight off of. I focused on trying to maintain a consistent distance from it, although it is so big that I often felt I was closer than I actually was. I felt the wind-chop pushing me mostly forward, but tried to keep my body at an angle to it so that it would not push me eastward.

The bigger the chop got, the more I felt like I was in the ocean, just without the salty water. I remembered reading that the Great Lakes have whales and wondered what I’d do if I saw a whale. (I later learned that there are no whales in the Great Lakes. It’s a total farce!) in any case, it was amazing being in such big freshwater. The vastness was mind boggling and special. After initially passing some large pods of people, I was eventually mostly swimming alone. I liked the feel of that, occasionally flipping over to swim backstroke and take a “picture memory” of the bridge from the water. It was peaceful out there.

Another swimmer, Jacki Galko, took this photo from the water and gave me permission to share it here. Her original photo was a fantastic selfie, but this lightly edited version looks more like my picture-memory.

All-too-soon, I passed the second tower and watched the suspension cables descending toward the water as I swam along. I felt an odd sadness at the bridge part of the swim not being longer. I guess doing marathon swims have got me spoiled. As I neared the final piling, I realized I didn’t really know where to go. We had been swimming on the east side of the bridge and I was aware that we needed to cross under the bridge at some point to reach the finish line, just west of the bridge. I swam over to the piling and slapped it (just for fun). We had been encouraged to do this by the race director so I knew it was allowed. Just then, I noticed the flash of someone’s bright orange buoy north of me on the east side of the bridge. I guess we stay on this side. There must be an opening in the breakwall, further north, I thought. The water here was very shallow and, surprisingly, got significantly colder. I found it refreshing on my face, shoulders and arms, as I was quite warm in my sleeveless wetsuit. Swimming next to the breakwall made the wind almost non-existent. I found this part of the swim to drag a little–no exciting waves tossing me about, no huge bridge to look up at.

The Finish

I caught up to the guy I was following–thanks guy! I kept following him as he turned left to go under the causeway. There was a little opening that you could swim under. I did backstroke, the ceiling of the opening just high enough to where I didn’t hit my hands. I swam past Guy on my right. I believe the left side of the tunnel may have had an easier current as we were now swimming directly into the unbroken southwest wind on the west side of the causeway. I looked for the finish arch and could just barely see it. As I took a few strokes without sighting, the wind pushed me off course and in toward the beach. I had to navigate straight into the wind to get back away from the shore and swim for the arch, this time sighting more frequently. I exited the soundless water to the cheers of excited spectators, all clustered tightly together around the finishing mat. Friendly volunteers congratulated me and commented on the wind picking up. Someone handed me a finisher medal and another volunteer removed my timing chip. My mom tried to hand me a towel, but I was really warm and didn’t want it. A random person I didn’t know tried to start a conversation, asking me how the swim was. The whole thing was a lot of sudden stimulation and I suddenly felt confused and overwhelmed from the sensory overload. So I told my parents I was going to go on a walk. I walked out of the crowd a ways, then laid down on the grass, wetsuit and all, catching my breath and looking at the sky. I already missed being out in the water, with the wind blowing and the bridge towers standing tall above me. The whole thing just seemed to go by too fast.

I took a picture from this spot

The bridge seemed strangely far away. My phone beeped at me as messages started coming in from other family members, congratulating me in response to my parents’ message that I had finished.

I went back to the crowd and watched other people finish for a few hours with my parents. The water just continued to get choppier and more rough. I later learned that many swimmers had a hard time staying on course during the latter part of the swim and had to be pulled out by the safety boats. It occurred to me that by being a faster swimmer, I had had a much easier course than those who had to swim in the rougher water that had developed due to taking longer to complete the swim. It seems sort of unfair–the faster swimmers should have a harder course, but the water doesn’t care about fairness or how fast you are. “In some ways, these people just did something even more impressive,” my mom remarked as swimmers unsteadily exited the water with the help of volunteers. I whole-heartedly agreed with her. Some of these folks had swum over twice as long as I had! And in worse conditions!

Of course, my mom insisted on taking a picture of me with my finisher medal, and I’m glad she did because it is a pretty cool picture.

What Am I Training For?

I lift my eyes just above the water to look at what’s ahead. Mostly paddle-boarders and kayakers, an occasional inner-tube floater. I hold my arm in place for a second to glance down at my watch. I’ve been swimming this same 800 meter stretch of the Deschutes River for three hours already. Kristine will be here in an hour. I think to myself. I just need to make it alone until then, and then the last two hours I’ll have company at least. I pick up the pace a little, just so my teeth will stop chattering. The water is cold, 61 degrees. Cold–at least for me, when I’m trying to stay in for 6 hours. I’m trying to work hard so my heart rate can stay up, but it’s not easy. The river is moving so fast that I inch along upstream even at my increased pace. I’ve got all my favorite upbeat tunes playing on my internal “stereo”, blasting away, running through my mind. The only actual sound is the water sloshing past my ear plugs, but the view is nice. The river runs straight through Bend, Oregon, carving a canyon lined with dramatic cliffs in this part of town.

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Ever since SCAR, people have been asking me what I am training for. The question comes in different forms, “When’s your next race?” or “So, what’s next?” or “Do you have any more big swims coming up?”. They ask Dan, when he is paddling next to me, “Is she training for something?”. Kristine reported almost non-stop chatting with Bend locals beginning with the same question during the swim described above. She said that almost every paddler stopped to ask her and that people stopped on the river trail and stared from afar and from the bridges above. The questions are always oriented to the future and the unspoken question is, “Why? Why are you doing this?”. It happens so frequently that I have concluded there must be something kind of universal about the question–something almost everyone is curious about and wants to connect over.

I give different answers at different times, ranging from informative: “Catalina Channel is my next big swim”, to silly: “I’m pulling an inflatable kayak behind me to train for Mighty Mac, where tow floats are required”. On Monday, when I was swimming in the river, a paddle boarder wondered why I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit–was it too constrictive? “I’m just trying to get used to the cold water,” I explained. I find that I am often sidestepping the question when it comes from strangers, almost as if I am subconsciously and suspiciously wondering, why do you want to know? Will you understand me if I tell you? It never feels complete or right to say, “I’m training for Catalina” or “I’d like to do the English Channel one day and it’s cold”. That’s not really the reason I’m training. If it were, I’d find it heart-breakingly difficult to spend the hours I spend swimming for only one day of payoff.

One of the best answers I’ve given was in the middle of a swim in Elk Lake in 2017. A woman in a kayak asked me if I was training for something. “You must be a triathlete,” she said.

It was the summer I took off from any racing or any organized swimming. I had no goals. There were no upcoming triathlons or open water swim races. I hadn’t even discovered marathon swimming yet. But I had discovered I hated swim meets even more than when I was a kid: the focus on times, the over-attachment to outcome. The exact speed I happen to achieve that one day determining how I view the past however-many-months of training. That summer, I had “quit swimming” for a second time. It was the summer I started this blog and decided to just go lake bagging. The kayaker wanted to know if I had some sort of event coming up.  “No,” I replied. “I train so that I can do this–swim around in this lake”.

Here’s a picture from that day.

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Isn’t swimming here a good enough end unto itself?

I joke with my friends that I’m the laziest, hard-working person I know. And it’s true–I love to sit around and do nothing, read a book, listen to music, watch netflix, lie in my hammock, stare at the sky, float on a raft. Sometimes I like to sit and watch my thoughts go by without making any special effort to regulate them. I’m a great doer of nothing. And while I am doing nothing, I’m alive and appreciating life. But if I hammocked 24/7, I would start feeling depressed and listless, maybe ansy or restless. I’d be not living. I love to do nothing, but I also love intense sensory experiences. I get a lot out of looking around, seeing new things, seeing beautiful things in nature, feeling intense emotions, feeling intense physical sensations. I love to go do stuff.

Here is me doing some not-swimming stuff that I love.

On facebook, after I posted a picture of myself bagging a lake in the dead of winter, a friend asked why I was doing that. “Because what else was I going to do that day?” was my reply. I don’t have to have an extrinsic reason, but all these sensation seeking, sensory-rich experiences that I crave do add up to things. I swam through the winter because “what else was I going to do”, and it was intense and felt awesome, but as a result, I can now tolerate cold much better. In turn, having better cold tolerance opens up more doors for me for more intense swimming experiences. When I do those things, I am sure it will seem to me that I trained for them, and I did, but I also just followed my heart and what I was interested in doing in the moment.

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A cold, blustery swim on Big Lake last fall.

Sometimes if I focus too much on extrinsic goals, like future stuff or comparing myself to other people, I start to get pretty bummed out. I really enjoy having a goal to structure my swimming around, like a direction, but I don’t like getting overly attached to a certain definition of success. When I do that, I tend to feel bad, even if I “succeed”. I don’t really totally know why. I don’t seem to get much richness or meaning out of those situations, but all the swimming experiences I do along the way are deeply important to me.

Looking back at my experiences as a competitive swimmer, I am pretty proud of some of my accomplishments. I’m also pretty sad about the places I fell short of my goals. Still. But my very happiest memories are from the workouts we did as a team–the summer morning practices where the sun was friendly and bright. And of course, the night practices, when the glow of the pool lights would shine at the end of practice. We would all leave feeling completely spent, and fall asleep twitching from fatigue. Some days I’d ride my bike to practice (a few miles), workout for two hours (7-8km), go water skiing all day, then return for night practice (another 7-8kms). My mom would pick me and my bike up at 10pm, and I’d go home exhausted but tired, ready to sleep and do it again the next day. Did I have to do it? No– especially not the biking and water skiing. It was intense and rich though, and something that I look back on fondly. I wouldn’t trade those days on the lake or the time in the pool for anything. I hope I am making more of those types of memories now days– ones I can look back on when I am older with gratitude for the experiences.

In the river swim described above, I did make it the whole six hours, and I was so proud! It was fun having Kristine there with me and fun seeing the same stretch of the river change throughout the morning as the sun rose high into the sky and the water went from smooth and empty to speckled with floaters and paddlers. Having completed that swim, I feel so much more confident signing up for some long, cold type swims next summer. The swim was worth it in and of itself–a great experience, and it will just lead to more great experiences.

Now if you think you get what I’m saying and you are on board with this whole “bottom-up” approach to training, then I’m just about to completely contradict myself. Everything I just said is true, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I absolutely love creating training plans. Planning for a big swim and planning each training cycle leading up to it and each week within that training cycle is an engaging and enjoyable creative process for me. There aren’t too many things I enjoy thinking about more. I love to think, “what will prepare me best for this challenge”. I love reading what other people have done to prepare for similar challenges. I love talking with people about training theories, approaches to training and their own experiences training. It’s probably my overall interest in planning and my long love affair with structure that contributes to this interest. For me, it’s a very important and enjoyable part of the journey.

I’ve been accused in the past of being paradoxical and contradictory. On one hand, I agree with that characterization, but I think the theme here that’s works for me is a non-attachment to outcomes.

When I was about ten or eleven, my parents gifted me a book of inspiring quotations. I tore the following page out and kept it forever:

“It’s good to have an end to journey towards, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.”

The quote was not attributed to anyone, so I’m not sure of its origin, but it resonated with my young self and has continued to stick on my mind throughout the years and different pursuits I’ve taken on. I’m happiest when I’m living this way and that’s enough for me.

Mindfulness for Peak Performance

I eye the bucket of ice water nervously, the clear cubes of frozen water floating mercilessly near the surface. Feeling my fight or flight system come online, a grim thought arises, I know what this feels like. Yes, I do and it’s intense. I can feel my body preparing.

“You’re going to win this one,” the lady next to me says, encouragingly. “You do this all the time!”

I laugh nervously. I’ve already disclosed to the group that one reason I’ve come to mPEAK was to work on the mental aspect of cold water swim training. Here I am, about to do an exercise that’s just about as similar as you can get while still on dry land.

What is mPEAK?

mPEAK or “Mindfulness for Peak Performance” is a mindfulness training course geared toward folks who want to work toward peak performance in an area or several areas of their lives. The developers of the course have worked with Olympic athletes, therapists, corporate executives, first responders and others. Originally in an eight week format, the version I attended was a three day intensive class with six weeks of follow up sessions offered via teleconference. I decided to attend to improve my skills at the mental aspects of marathon swimming, and also to learn more tools to help athletes I work with as a Psychologist achieve their own peak performance.

The instructors were Pete Kirchmer And Corrie Falcon. Pete was interviewed on the outside online podcast (which you can listen to here). I listened to the interview and was so impressed with Pete’s presentation of such a complex topic that I decided to attend.

During the introductions, I was surprised and thrilled to learn that Corrie Falcon, the co-instructor, was a competitive swimmer the same time I was. She swam for University of Southern California and made the U.S. National Team, an accomplishment that is on par with becoming an Olympian. She coached the University of California San Diego swim team for a number of years and now works with UCSD athletes and coaches across all sports on the mental aspect of their performance. I can’t imagine a person better equipped to help me learn these skills as an athlete or supporter of other athletes.

It was in the competent hands of these instructors that I placed my willingness to keep an open mind and try some challenging things.

At Corrie’s prompt, I plunge my hand into the cold water bucket. A surprising moment of relief and pleasure at the cold arises, and then the familiar discomfort, pain, the urge to change my circumstance, to remove my hand or think about something else. I remember that this is an experiment. I’m supposed to actively distract myself from the hand in the water, to exert my mental energy avoiding the sensation, to try not feeling what I’m actually feeling. I start singing a song in my head. It’s one of the ones I like having in my head when I swim hard. I mouth the words into the air of the conference room. I look out the window, look at Corrie and Pete, at the floor, the door, the ceiling, the table behind me. As I do this, my mind is drawn back to the cold hand, now starting to go numb. I get an urge to do a dexterity test, to reassure myself nothing bad is happening. I’m supposed to distract myself, I remember, looking around the room again. Everyone looks calm, some participants are thoughtfully removing their hands from their buckets. Others sit stoically, or look around the room like me. I guess let’s see what happens, I remark to myself. I think about people I know who are not there, about my dog, my house, Dan, people I work with. Again and again my mind goes back to check in on my hand. Without intending to, I compassionately and grimly remind myself that all is well and that I can do this. Eventually, Corrie says to stop. I’m not even feeling like I have to remove my hand, but I do it anyway.

Then we do another round, with the other hand. This time, we are instructed to try the opposite, focusing instead on the sensations, observing them carefully and redirecting the mind back to the hand if it falls into distraction.

So again I plunge the other hand in and open my mind to how it quickly starts to hurt. What the f*ck is this sh*t?! I wonder, hopefully in my head and not aloud. I force myself to stare at my hand, to get absorbed into the pain, to not direct my attention away. All I want to do is take it out. It’s uncomfortable. Everything sucks. I say compassionate things to myself, this hurts, but you can do it. I start to wonder if this hand has more nerves in it. Frustration ensues. More swear words. The realization that this way is much, much harder comes up, then the disappointment that it didn’t work as I expected. The thought, “what is wrong with me?” plays over and over. All the while there is the pain, front and center in my mind, filling almost all my awareness, leaving no room for anything else aside from the negative thoughts and feelings squeezing themselves into every nook and cranny of available mental space.

After Corrie said to remove our hands from the buckets, we raised our hands to indicate which was easier, the second or first round. I was surprised and relieved to find that the vote was split about 50/50. Pete said that this split was actually pretty typical for the trainings he had led. Relief flooded me. I wasn’t the only one. My story that there was something wrong with me turned out to be false. It was my preconceived expectation that was incorrect or unrealistic. Pete went on to say that studies have found people report the exercise to be less painful and are able to persevere longer after having completed an eight week mindfulness course. After my experience, I can see why.

Trying Too Hard

While I was trying to be mindful on the second trial, I was overcome by negative feelings and stories about my perceived inadequacies. I was trying very hard to “be present” with my sensations and indeed, I became hyperabsorbed by the pain, so much so that I lost track of everything else that was happening in my experience and automatic thoughts were left free to run rampant and unchecked, quickly giving rise to negative core beliefs. I got totally wrapped up in my negative story and wasn’t really present after all. When I was trying to be distracted, I actually was more balanced. Despite my efforts not too, I checked in regularly with my painful sensations–yep, still there, yes still uncomfortable, that’s ok you can do it.

Pete introduced a metaphor of putting a handful of salt in a glass (which tastes terrible) versus putting the same sized handful of salt into a lake, (where the water still tastes fine). To make the pain less, we would have to “make a bigger lake”. I realized that I had accidentally done this on the first trial while attempting to distract myself. My awareness had become bigger. The pain was still there, but I had intentionally and compassionately filled my awareness with other things that I enjoy thinking of. My “lake” included my psych-up song, my friends, my current surroundings, the breath, my other hand and of course, the pain. I was still aware of the pain, and I allowed it to be there but there were so many other things there with it. In the second trial, the salt (or pain) filled the whole glass (my mind). I didn’t expand around it, I tightened down and made my mind smaller so I would think of nothing else. To make matters worse, the physical pain triggered an emotionally painful story, which became my sole focus.

One of my many takeaways from mPEAK is that if you try too hard to force helpful mind states like “flow”, being in the zone, or mindfulness, you might get something opposite. I think this is well illustrated to me in the experience with the ice bucket challenge.

The Cost of Distraction

During the discussion of the ice bucket challenge, the issue of the cost of distraction came up. When I shared my experience with the group, Pete skillfully pointed out that in fact, I wasn’t able to completely distract myself. I couldn’t really avoid my physical pain. So, first of all, it may not be possible or sustainable to rely on distraction as a method of coping. In the absence of skills like acknowledging and self-compassion, which I accidentally used, distraction would not have been sufficient. Eventually, I would’ve had to take my hand out if the water. If this were a race or channel crossing, I’d have to get out. Another issue that was raised was that tuning in to physical sensations provides important information. Pete gave examples of athletes who ignored or distracted from physical pain, only to find they had ignored an injury too long, resulting in further injury and much longer recovery than if they had tuned into the pain, listened to it and taken a break sooner.

As swimmers who constantly need to monitor our shoulders for signs of injury versus signs of the normal aching that comes with effective training, this example hits home.

I regrettably did not take a photo of the ice bucket challenge, but here is a picture of the cave I wisely avoided venturing to on my own for the first time. “People swim through it often, when conditions are right,” local open water leader, Dan Simonelli told me. But as a beginner to the area, swimming on my own, I decided to listen to my fear of being slammed into rocks by waves rather than distract from that particular fear in order to swim on toward the cliffs. The water looks calm here, but it wasn’t the day before.

Another application is for cold water training. For instance, my intuition during both ice bucket trials was to check my dexterity to make sure I could still move my fingers. I’ve practiced doing this a lot in my cold swims. Dexterity is one of the tests me and Dan do together when he kayaks along with me. He asks me to show him I can still touch my thumb to each finger. If I can’t, that isn’t a sign to panic, but it’s really important information that he and I will use to determine if it’s time to get out or not. If we both avoid thinking about how my body feels and is reacting to the cold, we won’t know when to get out. Hypothermia can be dangerous. It’s important to push yourself, but it’s important to know when to stop. In my blog post about beginners mind in cold water, I wrote about this need to tune in to the senses when training in the cold and I had that very much validated during mPEAK.

A Mindful Swim

That evening, I went for a solo swim at La Jolla Cove to test one further application: coping with fear. The sun was heading toward the horizon and the water was more clear than it had been on my previous two swims the days before. Bright-orange garibaldi fish swam lazily below me as I headed out into the water. I noticed I felt more edgy about the extremely low possibility of encounter with potentially dangerous (ahem) “wildlife”. Sunset, sunrise… these are feeding times for many animals, many types of, well wildlife, I thought nervously as I swam along, passing the last swim buoy and heading into the territory beyond the now familiar swim buoy course. I decided to try out what I had learned at mPEAK. I acknowledged the fear, but didn’t dwell on it. I generated some positive thoughts and stayed present with other aspects of the current experience–the sky above, the clouds around the sun, the gentle waves lifting me up and down, and the long stretch of my stroke in the water. I tried to stay present with the uncertainty and the fear sensations but also not become overwhelmed by them. What is actually happening right now?, I asked myself, many times. I am swimming. I can feel the water and see it’s color. I am breathing. I am pulling. I am gently kicking. There is a nervous energy in my body. I am having thoughts about danger. And you know what? The fear just came and went the whole time. I just observed it. It was not as noticeable as I swam back toward the buoys and past them toward shore, but stronger again as I headed away from shore on another loop around the buoys. When I started swimming the final stretch back to shore, it was from a place of self-compassion rather than panic or fear. I felt done practicing swimming and done practicing being present with difficult sensations. I was ready for dinner and the comfort of my warm bed.

Drafting with the Peloton: the Value of Group Mindfulness Practice

“I have a hard time with group meditation,” I told my Psychologist colleagues, before coming the mPEAK. Prior to this experience, I’ve always been overwhelmed by my perception of other’s expectations of me while meditating in group settings. I should be doing this posture or have a certain facial expression if I am serious about meditation. I should practice this many times a week for this many minutes. I should only think about the breath. Lying down is inferior to sitting in the classic meditation stance. These are the sort of thoughts I imagine my fellow meditators to have in other group settings I have tried. At mPEAK, the message was clear and very different, both from the leaders and from other participants. Pete stressed what he called, “radical self-care”, which included encouragement to lie down, stand up, take a bathroom break, drink water or anything else we truly felt we needed. He recommended we consider things before doing them, but then decide to do what we think would be best, while maintaining a sense of mindful awareness. The implication was that we are wise enough to truly consider what will be the best posture, action or inaction for our own paths. For me, this often meant taking a more casual-looking stance or facial expression than you might see in the movies. I doubt anyone noticed, but permission to do this, to not fit the preconceived notion made all the difference to me.

I found many similarities between my fellow participants and people I connected with at SCAR. Both groups of people struck me as kind, resilient, community-minded and tough as nails. As a group, we defined our values from the beginning. Many group members had values congruent with mine, including compassion, striving for non-judgement and holding things lightly. As I got to know my fellow group members, I found it easier and easier to just be myself. This group environment and support allowed me to discover things I didn’t know about myself and wouldn’t have figured out without their influence.

For instance, during a yoga practice, we were invited to adopt the expression of a warrior. I felt brief social pressure to arrange my facial features in a certain way, channeling what I imagined other people thought of as a warrior. I caught myself doing this and realized that this group really wasn’t like that and I truly was free to do my own thing. It prompted me to really think about it. Then I realized that for me, a warrior’s mindset is kind of matter-of-fact, stoic and includes a bit of dry humor–like Woodrow McCrae in Lonesome Dove. Well, my arms might fall off while I’m doing this yoga pose, but best thing to do is just sit here and see what transpires, I thought, channeling my favorite Larry McMurtry characters. This is the thought of an individual and maybe I could’ve had it alone. But! The experience of feeling supported in having an individual thought and behavior that differed slightly from the group, while still in a group is something I simply couldn’t get without the acceptance and openness that I sensed from this particular group.

Using the examples of cyclists riding in a big group (or “peloton”) to draft off one another and make for a swifter journey, Pete explained that he believes there is a draft for mindfulness as well. We are stronger together, actually. Despite my previous fear, I’d have to agree. I think we are stronger together, especially when people are willing to be themselves with courage, even when we have different ways of doing things. When we are doing the work together, we are a stronger force against the winds that attempt to push us backwards. I know I certainly wouldn’t have made the progress I did without the help of the group this weekend. During the mindful practices, I felt comforted, calmed and encouraged by the people around me. When others shared their stories, I learned so much, was inspired and felt connected in a way that gave me the courage to keep showing up fully. What implications could this have for helping athletes working together in teams? Are there ways that teammates and communities of athletes can support each other’s mental toughness development? Can we achieve more together than we could dream of as individuals? I absolutely think so.

Swimming S.C.A.R.

As I write this, my head is still spinning with the whirlwind that is the SCAR 4-day challenge. “Let the adventure begin,” I posted on my Facebook the night before the first swim. And the adventure did not disappoint.

With ideal conditions, massive cliffs, blue waters and beauty as far as the eye could see, I was perfectly positioned to meet my goal of savoring each moment, even the ones that hurt. I knew the whole time that the experience would be over in the blink of an eye, that sometime soon I’d be where I am now: on a plane, sipping airport coffee and wishing we could start all over at the beginning and do it again.

Last night, as the sun was setting during the final day/stage, Roosevelt Lake, I watched the pinks and purples on the horizon behind me, gently stroking double arm backstroke to stretch my shoulders. Dan paddled quietly beside me. I tried to photograph the moment in my mind, the profile of the mountains, the sunset colors, the glassy water stretching on for forever behind me. This is truly the best reward, I thought. And you don’t get to take this one home, so soak it in now.

For anyone reading who isn’t familiar with SCAR, it is a four day stage race in Arizona, with distances ranging from 6.2-17 miles for each day. It was originally a training and adventure swim rather than a race per se, and I think for many of us, it still is. That being said, there is a pretty nifty prize–the famous SCAR belt buckle, which looks like this.

SCAR is also one of the best organized, well-run, fun-focused events out there. When I think about the logistics of running this thing, it’s mind boggling. The lakes are a chain of reservoirs on The Salt River, the water supply for Phoenix. Each swim started at a dam and finished at the next dam. Swimmers and kayakers must be transported by boat to the start and back to the staging areas after the finish. There are about 40 swimmers in each race. I watched the race organizers deal flexibly, cheerfully and gracefully with all kinds of logistical challenges. Many volunteers were swimmers who had completed the event before or other events like it. Everyone was encouraging, humorous, and positive to be around. On the SCAR swim Facebook page, you can see great videos of these folks in action. From crew doing back flips off the pontoon to saving each other from a diamondback rattlesnake that boarded the boat, these awesome people did it all.

Above: The rattler swims swiftly toward the pontoon boat before slithering aboard!

Being at SCAR, you really get a deep sense of what the marathon swimming community is about. I made a ton of new friends and got to know my current friends even better. There’s nothing like an epic experience to tie people together.

If you’re curious how I trained for this four day endurance adventure, check out this training blog post. and for other lake bagging we did in Arizona, prior to SCAR, check out this one here.

Saguaro Lake

Day one, Saguaro Lake, is often referred to as “the warm up”. At 9.5 miles, (8 if you go by our gps), it’s a pretty long warm up. But I can see why they call it that. I was happy with how I swam, but I didn’t find my groove mentally until the second day (or stage) of the event. I was kind of distracted, more frantic and not really relaxed like I enjoy being on a longer swim. I texted a friend, SCAR veteran Jamie Proffit, that night that I thought maybe I tried to hard. Tried too hard? Is that a thing?

Canyon Lake

The next day was Canyon Lake and rather than swim frantically, I set a goal to appreciate and value each moment of the swim and to not ask for things to be different than they are. By that, I mean being in the present moment even if the moment is uncomfortable. Your arm hurts? Well ok, that’s what’s happening now. You’re feeling frustrated? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Someone just passed you? Ok, fine that’s just what’s going on. It’s different than apathy. It’s acceptance, which allowed me to work with whatever the current conditions were. As I focused on allowing things that were not under my control, I noticed my appreciation for other things would come into sharper focus. Ideal conditions, scenery, Dan’s skillful paddling strokes and cool cowboy hat were things that took center stage in my mind. Other swimmers became companions rather than competitors. I wasn’t fighting my experience at all and found my strokes getting longer, the technique I have practiced coming through smoothly. I absolutely loved this approach. Oddly, I had the best time, even during those moments that were really hard.

Another aspect I enjoyed was how Dan and I were able to dial in our teamwork. We added some hand signals that helped allow him to guide us through the most efficient path through the steep, curving canyon. I later learned that some other swimmers swam much further than I did (according to their gps devices), which highlights the importance of the crew-swimmer-team aspect of marathon swimming. My successes became our successes because I wouldn’t have done nearly as well without him. Here’s me and Dan, photo credit to Patty Hermann!

Apache Lake

The third day is “the big one”, Apache Lake, billed as a 17 miler, but perhaps closer to 14 if you’re going by my gps watch. Distances on these things vary, depending on what route you take. The route depends on the conditions. For instance, if there is a headwind, it’s to your advantage to stay close to the more protected cliffs on the north side of the lake. You may swim further, but you would still be faster, due to calmer water. We actually had a tailwind for the first part of the race, so Dan set a course straight down the middle of the lake. The wind launched my body forward with every stroke. The motion of swimming fast sent me into a euphoric state. Good song after good song played in my head and I was on a roll. My heart rate was up and I was surging ahead, my muscles feeling strong as they worked together with the wind to travel on down the length of the massive lake. I told myself to slow down. I still had an estimated four hours to swim. I was less than one third done. But I found that I couldn’t. The adrenaline the wind was stirring up was just too much. My coach, Rich Suhs, had reminded me via text the night before to keep my head down and hips up. “Float like a boat”, he said. I kept thinking about that, which only added to the speed and fueled the euphoria.

The big surge went on for a couple hours, somehow. Then the wind calmed and the water became glassy. It was truly beautiful, the landscape reflecting off the lake in the distance. I found myself cruising at a more sobered, respectably grounded pace. I discovered that the scenery was much easier to view there, at Apache, because it was further away. I could look across the water on a breath, my head turned to the side, and see the entire height of the cliffs on the walls of the lake. At Canyon and Saguaro (first two days), I had trouble seeing much, since the cliffs were so close. I’d look up on a breath and just see rock directly beside me. I decided Apache was my favorite so far.

Then came the hard part. Out of nowhere, my left hip sort of gave out. I’m not sure how to describe the problem, but I had to kick with one leg for a little while. The left leg dragged behind me, useless. I tried some different positions, yelling to Dan to switch the kayak to my left side. I found that breathing exclusively to my left began to relieve the pressure and before long I was able to use the leg again. Eventually, after a half hour, hour? I was able to breath to my right side again without any hip trouble. Unfortunately, by then the damage was done. Breathing exclusively to my left had placed a disproportionate amount of burden on my right arm. Every few strokes brought a sudden, very sharp pain to the area near my lats and shoulder blade. “F@*$!!!” I yelled, involuntarily into the air during a breath. (Only what I yelled didn’t have the @ or the *.) Dan looked at me in alarm. I later learned he thought I was mad at him. I’m ok! I shouted on the next breath. I didn’t want to stop because I didn’t know what would happen if I did. I closed my fist on my right arm so that I could continue to stroke but without much pressure on my right arm muscles. I flipped over and did backstroke for awhile. I did breastroke, double arm backstroke. Tried freestyle again. Closed fist. Open fist. Still, every few strokes, the pain would sear me. “Oh Jess, what have you done?” I asked myself, thinking I must be now paying the price for my euphoric surge. Would I be able to finish? I looked behind me and didn’t see anyone at all. “There’s no one around,” I said to Dan. “How are you doing,?” he asked while I drank from my hydroflask. Thumbs sideways, I said, with my thumb. It was the first thumbs sideways I’ve ever given him. I always give him thumbs up, even during cold swims when I am really uncomfortable. I knew I had to “allow” this experience as well. It was just what was happening, like everything else. I started swimming again, taking very, very gentle strokes with my right arm. I was absolutely babying it and taking my time. I can’t say for how long I did this, but eventually the muscle must have sorted itself out because I was gradually able to increase the pressure on it without having any pain. Then everything was back to normal again. Normal muscle pain in my arms, normal muscle pain in my legs. For awhile I just admired more scenery.

The wind picked up again, only this time it was a headwind. It got choppy, but Dan took us toward a point and once there, we received some protection from the wind. Oddly, the headwind forced my stroke to change just enough that I must’ve been using slightly different muscles, because things hurt less, even though progress was slower. I picked my head up and was shocked to see we appeared to be heading right into a random cove with no outlet. What are we doing? Where are we going? I shouted at Dan, stopping and frantically looking around. “To that point over there!” He yelled back. “Go!”

I could just barely make out the faint outline of a point, camouflaged to look like just a cove. Dan told me later that he could hardly see it either, but had seen boats enter there, far in the distance. I again found myself overwhelmed with gratitude for his presence and skill. It turned out that this was the point right before the final push to the dam! After rounding the point, Dan spotted the orange buoys in the distance and gave me a thumbs up. I felt another surge coming on. He gave me another thumbs up a little later and I picked my head up to see what was ahead. Spotting the orange buoys, I got so excited that I put my stroke into full throttle and sprinted to the finish, whacking the line of orange buoys with a huge smile on my face.

Roosevelt Lake

Going into day four, I was in the lead for the overall series. I had decided before even coming to SCAR that the adventure and camaraderie was going to be the cake and the frosting of the cupcake and the competition could be there, but it would need to be the cherry on the very top. I’m proud I was able to keep that straight in my head, and having some good races was exciting and motivated me to try hard. As mentioned previously, this event was originally (and mostly still is) a training and adventure swim. People are respected and admired for many different skills, traits and experiences. I’m not just saying that because it sounds good. It really is the case. Someone with a lot of experience in marathon swimming (like a lot of channel crossings or otherwise hard swims) is highly respected, regardless of their speed. However, when it comes to speed, one aspect I appreciate about marathon swimming is that women are often competing on the same level as men. For instance, the winner of the Apache and Roosevelt swims was Catherine Breed, a woman from California, training for a North Channel crossing. I was second and many other women did very well on those lakes. Jamie Ann Phillips, a woman from Tennessee, won SCAR overall (men’s and women’s combined) for the four lakes last year and I won the overall this year. In some, smaller races, like END-WET, men and women are not even scored in separate categories. At SCAR, there are two belt buckles awarded for the speediest man and woman, a practice I fully support because, well, the belt buckles are awesome–why not give out two of them. But it’s cool that a female overall winner is not only possible but happening more often.

All of that being said, at the start of the final swim, I was still committed to my goal of savoring the experience, maybe especially so because it was the last swim. Roosevelt Lake is the night swim, so we adorned our kayaks, suits and goggles with lights and glow sticks. Our wave (heat) started at around 4:45 or so, with sunset at 7:05. I thought maybe the swim (6.2 miles) would take me three hours, because that’s about how long it took other people in some other years and there was a substantial (but not terrible) headwind. After rounding an island, we entered the main part of the lake. The choppy water tossed my arms around, ruining my technique. I found myself thankful for all the kicking I do at practice because it was easier to rely on my steady kick in the rough water than on my arms. I slowed my turnover down and found a steady catch-up stroke style rhythm and actually enjoyed the change in environment from the glassy conditions we had been blessed with in the days prior.

As the sun was setting, the lake settled into total calm again. I switched to backstroke so I could look around and watch the sunset. Looking behind me took my breath away. “Wow,” was all I could say. Dan looked behind him too. It was a beautiful site. Pinks, purples, yellow, orange and red painted the sky, while the sparkling lights of other kayaks and swimmers surrounded us. All moments during swims are worth savoring, I’ve come to find, but this one was especially enticing.

Getting Dan to switch the kayak to my left allowed me to view more colors on the horizon with every breath to the right. Just as the sky began to darken, we arrived at the bridge, which is near the finish line of orange buoys at the dam. It’s tradition to swim backstroke under bridges, so I did that.

The dam was lit up beautifully and I made a deal with myself: 50 fast stroke cycles freestyle, then 10 easy breastroke strokes to admire the dam in front on me. Before I knew it, the swim was complete, SCAR was complete. I was on the boat, other swimmers were arriving at the finish, Kent Nicholas (race director extraordinaire) was handing me and John “Batches” Batchelder our belt buckles and the boat was heading back to the marina.

Me and Batches with our SCAR belt buckles, post-race.

I always knew it would be over too soon. Batches and I had joked about swimming back to the marina (I don’t think either of us were actually joking–we both really wanted to). I kind of wish we had, but then again it’s always good to end hungry for more.

Oregon Lake Bagging goes to Arizona

Just a quick update while we drive from Payson (North part of Tonto National Forest) to the welcome dinner for S.C.A.R. in Mesa (just South of the Tonto NF). Right now we are driving through absurdly beautiful country. I glance up between words, with mixed feelings about writing this versus staring out the window and the rugged and beautiful territory. I was born in Tucson and thought Arizona was all prickly pear and saguaro. I didn’t know it was like this.

Or like this

The first day we were here, we visited some cliff dwellings and The Grand Canyon while I took a day off from Lake Bagging.

By day two, I was in full on swimming withdrawal. I decided to take a dip in Upper Mary Lake, the water supply for Flagstaff. There was still snow on the neighboring mountains, but the shallow lake had already warmed to about 55-56F. A passer-by remarked to Dan that he hadn’t seen the water level this high since high school and he looked to be around 50 or 60 years old. Pictured here, you can see there is actually a partially submerged sign that is normally in dry land (middle of photo).

After the swim I felt loads better and decided I wouldn’t miss the chance to bag another lake on day three. The rest of day two took us into the Tonto NF and to The Mogollon Rim area, a 3,000 foot escarpment rising from the land below. We searched for rocks in dry creek beds and hill sides, finding some real treasures.

On day three we drove up The Mogollon Rim to the plateau on top. There we found Willow Springs Lake, a shallow but clear lake, surrounded by ponderosa pines and reminding me of home. At 7500 feet, the water was still chilly at around 53-54 degrees, but not as cold as I anticipated. However, the wind whipped around me as I strode into the water and a dark squall approached from the north. Dan yelled at me to stay close in case the storm brought lightning with it. I swam around for about a half hour, then got out, just as the rain started to fall.

Here is my arm, seemingly pointing toward the sky, but actually just doing backstroke.

Tomorrow is the start of the S.C.A.R. event, so it’ll be another four days of solid Lake Bagging for this swim obsessed blogger. More updates to come.

Training for S.C.A.R.

Ok folks! On Saturday it’s off to Arizona, for the start of an amazing multi-activity adventure. By “multi-activity”, I mostly just mean swimming. But there will also be a trip to the Grand Canyon and rockhounding in the Tonto National Forest, not to mention piles and piles or southwest cuisine. I’ll try to update frequently, but hopefully I’ll be too busy locating outstanding fire agates and stuffing my face with enchiladas to provide fantastically written blog posts every day. So since I’ve got nothing to do right now except obsess about what the water temperature is going to be and a mound of paperwork for my day job, I thought I’d take the time to write a little bit about the swimming part of the adventure and what it has taken to prepare for this epic feat of endurance.

First, a little information about the event. SCAR is an acronym for four lakes, which are swum over the course of four days. The lakes and distances are as follows:

  1. Saguaro Lake (9.5 miles)
  2. Canyon Lake (9 miles)
  3. Apache Lake (17 miles)
  4. Roosevelt Lake (6.2 miles) at night!

I’ll tell you a little more about the event after I’ve done it, but spoiler alert–the main challenge isn’t really the long distances so much as it is the prolonged exposure to hypothermia-inducing temperatures. Every year, even last year (the warmest on record), swimmers are pulled from the water due to hypothermia. My main deal here is that I want to finish all four lakes, have a great adventure and hopefully meet some cool people. Not getting any hypothermia would be a big bonus, but I’ll settle for survival.

Here are some notes on each of the areas my training focus areas.

Cold Water Acclimation

Naturally, my training for this event included a focus on building my body’s tolerance to colder temperatures. Last year, on my birthday (beginning of May), I took a trip with Dan and my parents to Lake Billy Chinook, one of the first in the area to warm up. I measured the temperature at 60 degrees and thought maybe I could make it for a half hour. SCAR 2018 had just finished, and I had just been starting to consider if it might be something I could do… one day.

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Here I am, with my mom watching as I tentatively enter the water.

Thirty minutes later and I was fine. I actually felt great. And that was the beginning of me gradually increasing the time I could tolerate the low 60s. All summer I swam in cold lakes and got used to feeling chilly after a time. By the end of the summer, I did a long swim in Waldo Lake, 22k, 6.5 hours at 66 degrees. The air temperature was cool and it was so windy that Dan (who was kayaking) had to wear his shell to stay warm. That went fine too, and my confidence was increasing. Another memorable cold swim was the The Gates of the Mountains, in Montana. The scenery was so beautiful that I was motivated to stay in as long as I could. The air was hot and the sun warmed my back. My feet went numb and they itched that night as I tried to sleep. When our pool closed for two weeks for maintenance in September, I drove myself to Elk, Paulina and East Lakes for regular long swims in quickly cooling water.

Finally, early fall turned into late fall and the lakes cooled even more. Encouraged by more experienced cold water swimmers, I kept swimming outside. I returned to Lake Billy Chinook, swimming there weekly while the temperatures fell into the high 50s, then the low 50s and finally plummeted into the mid-40s. I wrote this entry about what it feels like to be a beginner in swimming again, since everything is different in cold water.

I even participated in the 24-hour relay in San Francisco, where I swam in 54-55 degree water for four sessions of 45 minutes per session in a 24 hour period. The last two sessions, which were at night, were a challenge for me, especially mentally, but in the end I was fine again.

The weirdest thing I did was go on long hikes in the cold air, with limited clothing. We had a snowstorm in February that prevented me from leaving my home for 5 days. I’d walk my dog in the snow, with a t-shirt and rain shell pants until I started to shiver. My skin would cool, just like in cold water, but I could last longer while hiking than in the 47 degree lake.

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Above: Snow hike at Smith Rock with Dan and Maya (the dog).

Several weeks ago, despite all of this practice, as is my way: I freaked out. In my head, I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I wasn’t going to last 6-7 hours in Apache Lake, in the low 60s on day 3 of SCAR. I was going to get hypothermia and die. Or worse, I was going to get out before I was done. There was nothing I could do about it. I was so distracted one morning, that I stood on the side of the pool at practice, looking at the water but not getting in it. I was trying to do a workout with the local ironman triathlon group, coached by the infamous and knowledgeable, Matt Lieto, a professional ironman-turned-coach.

“What’s wrong?” coach Matt asked.

“Do you want to be the Sports Psychologist’s Sports Psychologist?” I asked him.

“Sure, what do you have going on?” I explained that I wasn’t sure if I could stay coherent during the longest swim and that there was a chance I’d get so confused I wouldn’t know my own name and Dan (who would be kayaking) would have to pull me out. It bothered me that I don’t have control over that aspect of the swim. “If that happens, I can’t just power through it,” I told him.

He gave me some really good advice, explaining what I did and didn’t have control over. He told some stories of ironman races of his own, where he pushed himself to his ultimate limits… and then went back again and again to encounter those same limits. I was pretty impressed and inspired. It felt really good to have someone expect me to be tough, expect me not to quit because I am cold or afraid, expect me to keep going as long as I am coherent, as long as I have control.

I went to Billy Chinook that weekend and beat my personal best in 52 degree water by 28 minutes, lasting for 1 hour and 11 minutes on Saturday. On Sunday, I decided to do it again, except the water was a full degree colder. I had several minutes of sheer panic in the middle of the lake around 45 minutes. I wanted to crawl onto the kayak, convinced that I would die if I didn’t. There was actually no reason to believe this. Nothing was happening. But for a little while the self-fulfilling panic cycle had me in its jaws. Nothing was happening, but I was convinced I was dying. I kept swimming, fighting panic with every stroke while still nothing was actually happening. Dan stopped me for a drink break. He asked my what 21 minus 5 was. I told him it was 16, took a drink, showed him that my fingers were working fine and pretended like nothing was happening, because actually nothing was. A few minutes later, everything was fine. I kept swimming.

An hour and 13 minutes after getting in the water, about 25 minutes after my panic episode, it was time to get out. I still didn’t get numb fingers, or toes or “purple back” or “claw hand”. I could still touch my thumb to my pinky, open my hand all the way up, my stroke count was still above 60 strokes/minute, and I could still tell Dan that 30 divided by 6 was 5. Unfortunately, I could still remember who the president is. I felt a lot better. Meanwhile, the lakes in Arizona were warming up. This is what the cold water acclimatization training for SCAR was like.

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Distance Tolerance

Obviously, doing four marathon swims in a row requires some training in tolerating long distances. I had a few things going for me when I begun my training. First of all, I did END-WET last year, a 36 mile race in North Dakota, so I was already used to swimming a lot of meters per week. I didn’t really let that go down by much over the summer, so I was able to launch into SCAR training with a good starting base. Another thing I had to my advantage was that I grew up swimming a lot of yards. Even though that was 20 years ago, the body remembers. I did make a few changes to my normal schedule, however, to get ready to swim long distances 4 days in a row.

  1. I swim 6 days a week, but I made sure to put 4 days in a row that were challenging. Wednesdays were generally hard, fast “quality” days. Practices went for about an hour and a half or so. Thursdays and Fridays were 3 hour days and Saturdays were 4 to 6 hour days, depending on the week. Mondays and Tuesdays were just whatever and Sundays were lake swims or days off.
  2. I built up to the “mini-SCAR”, a term coined by my teammate, the wicked-awesome, Jamie Proffitt, one of the few to finish all four lakes at SCAR 2016 (during some of the most challenging conditions on record). I modified mini-SCAR slightly to be 3 hours Thursday, 4 hours Friday, 6 hours Saturday and a lake swim Sunday. I did it twice, and was joined on Saturday and Sunday both times by the super-cool, Portland-yeti-extraordinaire, Margot McKirdy (also doing SCAR!).
  3. As with all longer swims, it’s important to me to hit my max yardage two months or more before the event and maintain it for a sold two months. It’s my belief that it takes about that long for the body to get used to that amount of distance and habituate to it. I like to get to that early so that I can spend the few weeks before the event at a lower yardage per week.
  4. If you’re training for SCAR and want to see my distance log, let me know. It’s a lot and I don’t want to freak people out unnecessarily. Not everyone needs to go that far, but my body wants to.

Gettin’ Faster

I was pretty fast when I was a kid, so once I got to my target meterage per week, I decided to see if I might be able to get faster again. I don’t care so much for competition these days, but I like the idea of improvement. After all, I need a focus to the seemingly endless laps. I know this and that about swimming and getting faster, but I needed some help. So, I picked up the phone and called my club coach, Rich Suhs, who now lives in Alabama. Here’s the thing: Rich is actually a genius. He knows all about swimming and everything you need to be fast at it. Even more important, he figured out how to make me go fast, once upon a time, despite me being the slow kid no one wanted on their relay when he first started coaching us.

Rich is also a very tough coach and so I was a little surprised when, after I told him what I was doing, his first response was, “that’s a lot of swimming for someone your age.”

Wait. What?

I proceeded to inform him that he was supposed to tell me I wasn’t training hard enough, that I should do harder stuff and work harder and do more harder stuff to get faster. He was a little hesitant at first, noting that people’s bodies change as they get older. But after I gave him some data about my heart rates and what I noticed to be my limiting factors, he came around.

“If you’re pulling with paddles and a bull buoy, you’re just kidding yourself,” he blurted out at one point. “Do you have a bucket?” Finally. This was the coach I remembered.

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A bucket. I shuddered at the thought. We used to pull 5-gallon buckets behind us when we were kids, to build upper body strength (still my limiting factor). He told me how to put a bucket set-up together and gave me a set to do with it: 12x25s hard, with 20 seconds rest. He also decided I should do more power work in general. I think of it as “low density, high intensity”. Things like 16-20x 50s best average on an interval with 20 seconds rest. That set is a killer when you have been doing nothing but a lot of high density sets (like an hour swim or 100x100s or 4×2,000). It’s been hard, but already I’m faster than 2018 Jessica.

Stroke Technique

I also worked on my stroke. Everyone should. When snow-bound, I watched this video featuring coach David Marsh and it changed my life. All stuff I knew when I was a kid, but I’m not a kid anymore so I need to relearn everything.

Physical Therapy

I don’t have any shoulder issues, thank goodness, but I don’t want to get any either. So I work with a physical therapist regularly and do the things she tells me to do. It turns out, I am the weakest, in-shape person I know. My physical therapist tries to hide her dismay at the lack of stability in my “bird-dog” pose. My lower back has about once getting-out-of-the-pool per day policy. I can’t run. I hope by this time next year my whole body will be strong and stable. But that’s an ongoing goal.

Climbing

I go to the climbing gym a couple times a week and climb there. It’s way more fun than lifting weights. You meet nice people and you get into a good zone of focus. In between climbs, I read a magazine, do physical therapy exercises or belay someone else. I love to climb outdoors also, but there’s something I really love about the aching burn of my arms after a good gym climb. I haven’t been climbing the past couple weeks, due to tapering and I just can’t wait to get back. Since my upper body strength is a limiting factor for my speed, I consider climbing a pretty essential part of my swim training.

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Auto-belay wall at the Bend Rock Gym. Can’t wait to get back in there soon!! Wish me luck, SCAR is just a few days away.